Getting enough sleep, in fact, might be the single best thing you can do for your mental health. Getting too little can harm your mood and cognition in as little as one or two nights. Many studies have found links between too little sleep and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. For example, one study followed 1000 people for three years and found that people who reported insomnia at the beginning of the study were four times more likely to have experienced an episode of major depression by the end of the study. [https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-mental-health] Getting enough sleep is clearly important but how much is enough?
We are typically advised to get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. This somewhat broad range is based on the fact that we all have different physiology and different demands on our energy during the day. However, for most people, seven hours is too little, especially if you only get seven hours of sleep most nights. Two similar sleep studies show why.
Sleeping Less Than 8 Hours — What the science says
The first study consisted of two groups. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12683469] The first group was completely deprived of sleep for three days. The second group was divided into three subgroups that were allowed to sleep 4, 6, and 8 hours per night, respectively, for 14 days. All participants were given various tests including alertness and cognitive performance tests throughout the study.
- The results showed that participants who slept only four or six hours a night had steadily declining test scores throughout the study. By day 14, cognitive performance for the 4 and 6 hour sleep groups was almost identical to the day 2 results of people who had been totally sleep deprived. Meanwhile, the group that slept eight hours a night appeared to be fine.
In the second study, participants slept either three, five, seven, or nine hours a night for seven nights and then were given three days of eight hours of sleep to recover. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12603781] Again, they were given cognitive tests throughout.
- Results showed that participants who slept only three hours a night continued to decline throughout the study while those who slept five or seven hours declined to a certain point, after which declines leveled off. This suggests that seven hours is probably not enough sleep for most people to perform at their full mental capacity.
- The study also found that three days of eight hours of sleep were not enough for even the seven-hour group to fully recover, indicating that a weekend of sleeping in will not compensate for getting too little sleep during the week.
Based on these studies, it appears that eight hours of sleep is the minimum for a healthy young adult to stay mentally sharp. However, in practice, you may need more. For example, if you’re recovering from addiction, you are involved in an intensive process of learning and healing, or you are very physically active — you may also need extra sleep to physically recover.
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